The Sound of Sirens Used To Freak Me Out As a Kid. Here’s How I Overcame the Fear.
August 1957. A month before my fifth birthday. I’m playing on the sidewalk a couple of doors down, in front of my best friend’s house. We’re scribbling on the pavement. White chalk. That’s about all there was back in the day of dinosaurs. At least, that’s all anybody had in my neighborhood in the mid-1950s. We didn’t even have the yellow sticks of chalk I was surprised to see once I started school. We didn’t have sidewalk chalk either — those thicker and longer sticks that come in an array of colors. No such thing back then.
It didn’t bother us, having only one color. White was fine with us. We would make marks and lines that sorta resembled sunshine, houses, stick figures, numbers and letters. Having an entire sidewalk as a canvas fed our budding artistic selves.
Although the summers were hot and humid, the sidewalks on our street were shaded by full-grown Dutch elm, box elder, green ash, and birch trees. Back then, the neighborhood was quiet and sleepy. It still is.
I never liked living there. It was uncomfortable. Maybe it was because of my childhood trauma. Maybe the inherited trauma I carried from birth weighed too heavily on my innocent soul.
But making art on the sidewalk was one thing that soothed my spirit. So I’d squiggle and scrawl and draw for hours, sometimes erasing the marks I made to make more room for my designs. Sometimes I’d just keep going down the sidewalk, past one house and another, until I reached my friend’s house four doors down. She’d join me for a while, and then we’d turn back. Oh, the days when neighborhoods were safe enough to let the kiddies roam without worry.
On this particular afternoon in late summer I was working away on my chalk doodles in front of my friend’s house. A slight breeze touched my mousy brown hair. The air carried the scent of the roses, coneflowers, and phlox that proliferated in the neighborhood. Every few minutes I’d raise my nose from my work on the sidewalk to take in the smell, savor it, and rest in wonder surrounding the splendor of it. Even at four years old, despite whatever trauma I held, I was enchanted with the mystical.
As quickly as my enchantment with the wind and the flowers began, a loud piercing whine shattered the mood, transformed it into something frightening. In the distance a keening so terrifying to me that my breath stopped for a moment, I panicked, dropped my chalk, and ran as fast as I could toward the safety of home on weak and trembling four-year-old legs.
Out of breath, “Mommy, Mommy, someone is hurt!”
This is how I interpreted the sirens that would occasionally sound in the village. Someone was in trouble. Someone was hurt. The sirens were attached to ambulances rushing to I don’t know where. This sound was uncommon in my part of the world. Sirens. I worried for the wellbeing of whoever was at the receiving end of ambulances. My four-year-old self, frightened out of her wits.
Seirinaphobia — the fear of sirens. Jiuhuphobia — the fear of ambulances.
There was nothing little me could do, no way she could help, no way to know what was happening, no way to know if someone was hurt badly, in pain, dying, no way to know if they’d be okay.
Eventually the sirens would pass and I’d calm down, the anxiety leaving a lingering touch of angst.
Back then, every siren activated my internal panic mode. I’d run home to my mother, to be met not with a comforting gesture, but with indifference. This taught me nothing except that maybe there was something terribly wrong with my mother.
The following summer, I was at a Fourth of July parade with my parents and some of my aunts, uncles, and cousins (there were so many of us!). It was the first parade I’d remember going to. The high school marching band passed by, playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Homemade floats carried smiling and waving 4H kids. Cowboys and cowgirls on prancing horses waved to us. We waved back enthusiastically. Men and women dressed up in old-fashioned clothes and driving Model Ts passed by, throwing candy into the street that all of us kids scrambled to pick up. A troupe of square dancers paused as they danced for us, me amazed with the Grand Right and Left. Shriners in their fezzes drove little cars in circles and made us laugh.
And then there were the police cars and firetrucks and ambulances, sounding their sirens.
Police cars and firetrucks and ambulances, sounding their sirens.
For a split second, I wondered if I should panic, but the cheering of the crowd and their smiles told me these sirens weren’t coming to anyone’s rescue, that no one was hurt.
The policemen and the firemen and medics smiled and laughed and waved to us and threw candy to the crowd. A few of the men were on foot, handing out candy and shaking our hands.
And then I saw my grandfather on the biggest red firetruck. Grandpa? On a firetruck? At the time, I didn’t know that Grandpa was the fire chief in our little village. But I did now.
This was the first eureka moment of my life.
My grandpa is the fire chief! My grandpa! It’s certain he’ll be sure everything is okay. I’m safe, and so is everyone in the village.
There was no emergency here at the parade where the sirens blared— just friendly policemen and firemen making noise with their sirens and having fun with us.
And I saw first-hand that not just ambulances, but firetrucks and police cars have sirens too.
Maybe I lost my terror of sirens at that parade. Maybe something else made me realize I didn’t have to be frightened when a police car or firetruck or ambulance sounds their sirens. My grandpa and the other men were on the job. If my grandpa trusted them, so did I. All these men were on their way to help someone who was hurt, in trouble, maybe even dying.
Sirens carry a sense of urgency, but maybe I didn’t have to.
Maybe the police and firemen and medics would help them. Of course they’d help them. I needn’t be frightened and anxious. I didn’t need to feel sad and hopeless and helpless and afraid. It didn’t help — me or them. There wasn’t anything I could do but take comfort knowing my grandpa and his helpers were on the way to take charge of a frightening situation.
Just that knowledge calmed me. Knowing that my grandpa and other good men were on their way. My terror dissipated. For good. No more fear. From that time on, I no longer panicked at the sound of a siren.
These days, I’m more inclined to create at my keyboard than on the sidewalk with a piece of white chalk. When sirens sound, I don’t get frightened and run to someone for comfort. I’ve long outgrown that. Instead, I send healing juju that travels along with the police cars and firetrucks and ambulances, knowing they’re answering the distress call, knowing I’m doing my part to help. It’s the only thing I can do.
Grandpa’s been gone for many years now, but sometimes I sense him watching from his position in the sky, confident and in charge, helping however he can.
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